Can Democrats' Immigration Reform Plan Succeed Through Budget Reconciliation?

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U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, waits for a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and Senate Budget Committee Democrats to begin in the Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol building on June 16, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Padilla, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, is pushing to pass a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants as part of a spending bill. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

As part of their ambitious $3.5 trillion budget plan to support families and spur job growth, top Senate Democrats included an immigration reform provision that could potentially offer a pathway to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants.

The lawmakers hope to pass the massive spending framework through a budget process called reconciliation, which only needs a simple majority in the evenly split Senate. But some observers question whether a citizenship bill could be enacted through a procedure that skirts the possibility of a filibuster in that chamber.

The current plan, supported by the White House, would pay for clean energy projects to fight climate change, as well as “human infrastructure” programs including universal pre-kindergarten, community college grants and an expansion of health care for seniors.

Supporters of including immigration provisions in what is primarily a budget package argue that obtaining legal status is a key that opens opportunities for undocumented people, who are often low-income essential workers.

“Citizenship is essential infrastructure for immigrant families. For many, it's a gateway to a driver's license, to health care, to higher education,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, during a call with reporters.

Padilla, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, is pushing to pass a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, "Dreamers" and other undocumented immigrants as part of the spending bill — a move he said would benefit all Americans.

“Creating new paths to citizenship will grow our economy and improve workplaces for all. And that's exactly the purpose of the infrastructure investments that we are developing,” Padilla said.

The broad budget deal includes about $120 billion to grant green cards to immigrants and fund border management, according to a staffer in Padilla’s office. But details will still be worked out in coming months by the senator and other members of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration policy.

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This comes after bills to legalize more than 4 million farmworkers, "Dreamers" and immigrants eligible for temporary humanitarian protections were approved in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year. But those measures would need at least 60 votes to succeed in the Senate, where they face a wall of opposition by Republicans.

That’s why for months now, immigrant advocates have pressured Democrats to use reconciliation to adopt immigration reforms that have proven elusive for decades.

“This is our year. We expect — and demand — the inclusion of citizenship for undocumented youth, TPS holders, farmworkers and essential workers in the reconciliation package,” said Lorella Praeli, co-chair of the We Are Home campaign.

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“And, we will make sure that every elected official knows they will be judged at the voting booth on whether they deliver citizenship for millions this year,” warned Praeli, a formerly undocumented immigrant, adding that Democrats will lose credibility among Latino and immigrant voters if they don’t enact promised reforms.

A legalization program would create jobs and increase wages, with major economic benefits to the U.S., according to a recent study by researchers at UC Davis and the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

But Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said reconciliation is reserved for policies that have a direct budgetary impact — increasing or lowering the federal government’s tax revenue and spending. And the procedure is not intended to make major policy changes, he said.

“It would be a stretch to use this process that was set up to set a fiscal blueprint to take on and make major changes in immigration policy,” said Hoagland, a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee. “I'm not arguing we shouldn't do it. I'm just saying this is not the tool to use.”

Whether immigration and other Democratic policy ambitions meet the strict requirements of reconciliation will be largely up to Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whose job it is to interpret chamber rules.

Polls show a majority of likely voters support a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. An even greater proportion of Americans say they favor providing a permanent legal status for "Dreamers" — people who have lived in the U.S. since they were children and who acquired the name base on a never-passed legalization bill called the DREAM Act.

If a carefully crafted immigration measure makes it into a final budget bill, it’s an open question whether all 50 Democratic senators would back it, particularly those from battleground states such as West Virginia and Arizona, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

“It is such a narrow margin that if two Democratic senators in toss-up, contested states are concerned that they may be seen as pro-amnesty, you could see they may not support it,” Chishti.

Still, with strong Republican opposition to a broad immigration reform, he said this budget process is the only viable strategy Democrats and immigrant advocates have this year.